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Reimagining Jobs and Livelihoods in the Textile Industry

Review of the panel discussion at CAIF Conclave during the SANKALP Summit 2021 in India 

At the end of last year, our Co-founder and Managing Director Christina Jäger spoke at CAIF (Circular Apparel Innovation Factory) Conclave during the 2021 Sankalp Global Summit, contributing to the panel discussion ‘Reimagining Jobs and Livelihoods in the Textile Industry’. The panel discussion brought together leaders from organisations such as IKEA Foundation, BRAC and Fairtrade India.
The textile industry is undergoing significant shifts and disruptions in the established way of doing business. While it is marked by improved technology, smart manufacturing and better resource utilisation, it comes with far-reaching implications for the livelihoods of workers. With the theme ‘Sustainable business is good business’, the CAIF Conclave features some of the Global South’s leading voices, exploring how we accelerate the transition of the textiles and apparel industry towards circularity through collective action.

In India alone, textile manufacturing is a market worth over one-hundred-billion dollars. It is the largest employer after the agricultural sector, providing jobs to over 45 million people directly and over 100 million people in adjacent industries. If we expand this conversation to other countries of the Global South, we can grasp the immense footprint this industry has. Most of the workforce continues to operate in the informal economy with very little social protections and inadequate remuneration. 80 percent of the workers in this sector are women, who often suffer even worse working conditions.

In this article we have summed up the contributions of the panelists. Christina addresses the issue of textile waste and how social business opportunities are creating circular business models. She shares insights she has gathered from the work that Yunus Environment Hub is doing on the circular economy and textile waste streams. Vivek Singh, from IKEA foundation
, speaks about the importance of young people and suggests approaches to move towards a circular economy in the textile sector. An interesting viewpoint of how gender stereotypes are preventing development is highlighted by Jenefa Jabbar of BRAC. Finally, Abhishek Jani, CEO of Fairtrade India, speaks about involved stakeholders and their specific role in the transformation of the textile industry. 

Christina Jäger
Co-founder and Managing Director at Yunus Environment Hub 

According to Christina, the challenges of recycling textile waste are based on similar fundamental problems as for other waste streams: insufficient and inadequate logistics. This is an issue that
is seen in other waste streams, such as plastic or organic waste. On the one hand there are large amounts of waste being generated every day, and on the other, there are recyclers that run their machines under capacity because they are not able to rely on a constant flow of qualitative input material due to a lack of waste source segregation and collection. This makes it difficult for recyclers to engage in long-term planning and steer investments into recycling technology.

Looking at the plastic waste sector, this problem stems from disparate values attributed to certain types of waste resulting in only fractions of waste getting collected by waste workers; materials that have no or low value on the market still end up in the environment. For textile waste material, blends are a major issue for mechanical textile recycling.
Workers in the waste sector also receive inadequate remuneration and lack safeguards and social security, which is characteristic of working in the informal waste sector. Christina calls for fundamental change in this regard. She goes further in mentioning the much-needed respect and appreciation of the service they provide for us: They need to be compensated for the environmental service that they are providing, not solely for the material that they are collecting.” 

One option for breaking this cycle would be to lift the waste workers out of the informal sector. From her own experience of visiting multiple countries in the Global South and engaging with numerous stakeholders in the waste sector, Christina states that formalisation of jobs is not always possible. Often, workers are not doing this work full-time. To them, it is more of a side job to generate extra income for their families. She adds that some of the waste workers even prefer to stay independent instead of working in a factory where working conditions are often inhumane. One way to integrate or provide them with social security would be to further implement extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes that take the informal sector into account. 

  • Download the EPR toolbox that YEH has developed together with other members of PREVENT Waste Alliance here. 

Furthermore, Christina highlights the important role that technology plays in overcoming logistical challenges. Presenting an example of Yunus Environment Hub’s work in Ethiopia with post-industrial textile waste, she points out that links are often missing between where waste is generated and where it is recycled or collected. A digital solution could be used to rectify this, making it a clear example of how digital solutions could be an asset in enabling the waste sector to work more efficiently. Often, integrating smart technology is criticised out of fear where it should rather be seen as a chance to shift towards sustainable solutions and upskilling workforces. In conclusion, Christina suggests taking an optimistic approach towards technology but urges caution at the same time. When developing artificial intelligence, for example, it is important that we incorporate social aspects such as inclusion in the design. It’s also important to create legal frameworks that prevent technology from aggravating the problem, rather than solving it.

All big brands are aware of the fact that there is only one way forward: incorporating circular principles in their business model. We can see them trying to move towards a more sustainable path, but if you are a big company and your business model has been always based on a linear model it is impossible to do that overnight.”, Christina states.

This is where social business entrepreneurs come in, by designing circular business models with a focus on solving environmental and social issues. She highlights that it is important to create the right environment for people to discover their potential and put it to use. Often it is the case that people do not recognise that starting a social business is a viable option for them because they simply do not believe that this is something they could achieve. That is why it is of importance to encourage and support them in their ideas. 

 Christina proceeds by giving two concrete examples of social businesses in the textile sector: 

  1. Grameen UNIQLO 

Grameen UNIQLO is a collaboration between the Japanese retailer Uniqlo Co. Ltd. and Grameen Healthcare, which manufactures and sells clothes in Bangladesh at affordable prices. Not only is the pricing adapted to the local market, but also cuts, patterns and functional material are made to fit the climate and culture in Bangladesh. Furthermore, the fabric is designed and produced in a more durable manner to prevent waste in the first place. The social business is reinvesting all profits into its own business activities and for the benefit of the people. To provide equal opportunities, Grameen UNIQLO offers a comprehensive and unique welfare system. They provide work and study internship programs for the children of the workers, as well as an interest-free loan program for health or education purposes and is supporting socially vulnerable people, especially in disaster situations. Having spoken about the role of technology, Grameen UNIQLO contributes to industrial development and advancing manufacturing technology by enabling know-how transfer and integrating their factory workers in educational support programs. 

  1. Grameen Fabrics and Fashion Ltd.

Grameen Fabrics and Fashion Ltd. is a social business in Bangladesh which focuses on eliminating social problems such as unemployment and poverty, while addressing health issues at the same time. With the completion of the ‘Social Business Industrial Park’, the company created employment opportunities for 10,000 people. It offers affordable products such as sanitary napkins for low-income female households, especially garment workers, and other products for underprivileged groups in local and international markets. In addition, the company set up environmentally and worker-friendly factories to manufacture composite knitwear and treated mosquito nets for protection against malaria, dengue and other mosquito transmitted illnesses. 

Even if textile manufacturers try their best to avoid the creation of waste in the first place, there will always be a certain amount of it, both in post-production and eventually post-consumer garments. This opens a window of opportunity for entrepreneurs to come up with solutions on how to deal with waste instead of dumping it or burning it. Christina concludes that even though they play an important role, moving towards a circular economy can not only be seen as the sole responsibility of social business entrepreneurs. Real change requires collaboration between all stakeholders and a circular economy starts with waste prevention in the first place. 

Vivek Singh  
Head of Portfolio – Employment & Entrepreneurship at IKEA Foundation 

 The transition towards using textile waste as a resource and moving towards a circular economy in production processes, and our consumption habits, will entail changes in roles across the value chain. New job opportunities will be created not only for workers in the textile and the garment industry, but for those involved in the repair, maintenance, sorting, collection and resale of clothing. Vivek paints a clear picture of why textile waste should be seen as valuable resource: for every 1,000 pieces of textile waste being handled, about 20 decent jobs can be created; and for every kilogram of waste which is reused, we can save up to 7,500 liters of water. This indicates that improving livelihoods and acting more sustainably are interrelated and that harnessing the potential of textile waste can help us to achieve both.

Vivek highlights the crucial role of young people to fill in this transition and the untapped potential of entrepreneurs:
“Young people are the future, especially in the Global South where 97 percent of the young people are working in the informal economy. They are ready to take risks, to innovate and think out of the box. It is therefore important to understand their aspirations and needs and developing capabilities of their small and growing businesses instead of forcing our own ideas and beliefs onto them.”

Especially with women, who are traditionally involved in the textile sector, we should consciously work towards upskilling them and focus on building role models – for example with the help of mentoring program tailored towards female entrepreneurs.

He suggests four approaches to move towards a circular economy and therefore a circular textile sector:

  1. Holistic approach along the value chain: we need to collectively bridge the gap between the innovators and manufacturers to promote large scale uptake of green solutions. It is important to focus on small and growing businesses and building their capabilities to integrate them in the entire value chain. 
  1. Collaborative approach: we need to build, amplify, and strengthen coalitions of willing and like-minded organisations, convening them together for coordinated action – particularly the private sector.   
  1. Mission mode: we need to set an entrepreneurial spirit and maintain a certain level of flexibility as well as be ready to take risks to experiment in moving forward with agility. 
  1. Plug gaps based on evidence: through networks and thorough research we need to identify what’s working and what’s not and act accordingly.  

 Vivek concludes that for these approaches to succeed it is important maintain a humble attitude towards partners and the local communities: “A successful collaboration between all involved stakeholders requires patience, mutual respect and most importantly letting go of individual egos. If are we ready to embrace all of this, I believe the answers are already within us.” 

Jenefa Jabbar  
Director Social Compliance and Safeguarding at BRAC 

Jenefa highlights the importance of getting rid of toxic gender stereotypes:
“If you want to achieve any sort of change, in automation or circularity, you’re going to have to change your perception. You need to eliminate patriarchal structures and the stereotypical roles of men and women.”

Looking back on the past 40 years of the Readymade Garments Industry of Bangladesh (RMG), she states that women who can sew have always filled positions on the production floor, resulting in 95% of workers being female. Men, on the other hand, were considered fit for more advanced positions, so they mostly fill middle management positions. She is convinced that with automation increasingly adapted to the textile sector, significant changes will follow.

If we want to further proceed with industrial automation, we need to include female workers. These women gained expertise in the textile sector for a long time and are crucial to implement these changes. We can’t leave women behind for the sake of us all, she says.

Especially due to the pandemic, it became clear that social protection safety nets are very important – for both the formal economy and more so for the informal economy. Jenefa sees a structural problem beginning with too little knowledge of the informal sector. How many people are working there, how are their living conditions and how much do they earn? It is a difficult task to establish laws and regulations when governments are lacking this kind of data. Jenefa advises stakeholders to take a holistic approach in mapping the informal sector and collecting necessary data. She concludes that this is not a task a single stakeholder can manage, but a challenge that needs to be collectively approached by governments, brands and factory owners – everyone has a role to play to set foundations for ensuring social safety nets.

Abhishek Jani
CEO Fairtrade India

For Abhishek, an integral part of the problem is the dehumanisation during production. He criticises that in the textile industry, just as in any other industry, business comes down to numbers and KPI’s instead of recognising the dignity of those doing the labour and their families. To change that, we need to see beyond minimum income – which reduces workers down to their calorific value – and move towards a living income, ensuring that everybody can live a life in dignity. Abhishek adds that in recent years, Fairtrade India found that businesses were putting emphasis on traceability and transparency while trying to take responsibility for the whole value chain.

Often, we see large fashion retailers being held solely responsible for change, while the reality is more complex. All stakeholders have their role to play
in moving towards a more inclusive and circular textile industry: 

: Regulators can provide frameworks for doing business more responsibly and sustainably. They can also push for national guidelines that were created in recent years. To name a few: the Human Rights Due Diligence Directive established in Europe, Modern Slavery Acts in Australia and in the UK and Duty of Vigilance in France. These guidelines constitute an obligation to prevent human rights violations and environmental abuses – both within the company itself, as well as its subsidiaries and even subcontractors and suppliers along their supply chains.

: Over the past decade consumer awareness and engagement, particularly in fashion, has been increasing remarkably. This serves as motivation for holistically redefining consumption and incentivizing entrepreneurs across the bank.

Finally, whether it’s in the secondary markets or the primary markets, or whether in debt or equity, investors hold huge sway in forcing businesses to listen. One part is facilitating market linkages for those who commit to better practices and therefore incentivising companies to engage further in sustainable efforts.

Abhishek concludes that it’s about coordinated efforts and highlights the importance of an integrated approach. “
A circular economy will not be achieved if we set our focus only on specific dimensions of sustainability, as it has happened in the past. Only if we consider the roots of the textile value chain and create a framework to commit to better conditions and working practices for the cotton farmers, might we be able to turn the story around for the textile industry,” he states.